Playing With The Blog Again

Hey, guess what? I’ve been playing with the weblog again! Just off of yesterday afternoon’s high of making a new page for the Christmas letters, I decided to completely change my blogs layout. Just six months after the last layout. What can I say? I like fiddling! But honestly, I like this new theme a lot better. It’s less complicated, not as full of crappy hacks to make things work, the blogroll is less messy, etc. I’ve also deployed Google Analytics over everything on interfree, so I’ll have even more stats to play with. Go me! And, of course, you can now subscribe to my updates via email. BIG WIN!

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Listen to last.fm on your Nokia N82

A little while ago, I covered how to get Foobar to play nice with XM and last.fm. Unfortunately, XM still isn’t available for the Nokia N82 smartphone. However, last.fm is, thanks to a client called Mobbler. All you need to do is install the program to your phone, and enter your last.fm username and password. It even works perfectly with talks! Cursor up for love track, down for ban track, right for next track. Use the volume keys on the side of your phone to turn the sound up and down. Press key 2 to hide the application, and go on with your other work, while listening to music. Unfortunately, last.fm uses 128 kb/s mp3, and can’t transcode to something lower. That means that it’ll only work on 3g or wireless.

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Making Foobar2000 Social

If you’re a user of foobar2000, the player now has all the components you need to enjoy the online music revolution, right from your media player! With just four downloads, you can add last.fm support and XM Radio to foobar.

The easiest is XM Radio support. Just download foo_xm from this website. Unzip the file, and copy the dll file into the components directory of your foobar2000 installation folder. Then open prefferences, and enter your XM email and password. You can now add XM channels to any foobar playlist, just like you would add any other type of streaming radio. No more opening your browser, loading flash, and logging in just to play XM. Also, now-playing notifications can be shown on the system tray, in your msn status, or anywhere else you already have foobar set-up to show now playing info. You can even use your DSPs on XM streams. It’s all the power of foobar, plus XM.

If you have a last.fm account, with a little more work, you can make foobar your last.fm headquarters. The most important download is foo_audioscrobbler. Download it, install, and enter your username and password in the configuration. Everything you play in foobar will now be sent to last.fm, without having to install the crappy last.fm client.

The next step is to get last.fm radio inside Foobar. Download foo_lastfm_radio and add it to foobar. Add your last.fm username and password in it’s configuration area, and you’re ready to go. You can open any last.fm radio stream from the file menu. You can also right click on a song in one of your current playlists, and select menu entries to play the last.fm artist radio or tag radio for that track. You can also download albumart of the currently playing song, skip songs, see upcoming songs, etc. This makes it really easy to switch between playing tracks from your local music library, and streaming similar tracks from last.fm.

The last step is to add the power of last.fm to your foobar media library, to help you create playlists based on your last.fm profile. Download foo_scrobblecharts, install it, and you can right click on any song, and select a menu entry to automaticly create a playlist of similar songs you already own. This is extremely useful for people who, like me, are two lazy to set-up playlists by ourselves.

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Thoughts On Creative Writing Courses

For reasons I don’t exactly understand, someone sent me an email today asking for my opinion on two different creative writing courses. I’m not a fiction writer…yet, and I’ve never taken any creative writing courses other than Writer’s Craft in grade 12. However, I didn’t let that stop me. I always have an opinion, about everything. So for anyone else who wants my uninformed opinion, here you go.

Honestly, the only advice I can give you is: think carefully about what you want from the course. A lot of creative writing books, and thus I would assume courses, teach you how other people write, and what works best for them. But that doesn’t help you figure out what’s best for you. Why not start a weblog, and write in it as much as you can (daily, if you can manage it)? That’s free, and you don’t even have to risk rejection as you learn. That’s mostly how Ryerson University teaches us journalism. Every few days, I find myself out on the street, doing interviews, script writing, filming, writing for a paper, or putting together features. Our profs spend little time teaching; they make sure we have the requirements straight, and then we learn by doing. If you need critical feedback, you can join writers websites, mailing lists, or a local writers group. I’m not sure you need to take a course for that, either. And I know you don’t need to take a course to submit your work to magazines, and see what happens. You might get rejected, but you can learn from that as well as you can learn from a course.

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Abandonware: JFW Hangman 2.0

If Sean can post all of his abandoned software projects, why can’t I? Anyway, I’m out of entry topics for the moment; I’ve been busy all day, and I just don’t have a darn thing I want to write about.

Thus, have a copy of JFW Hangman. It comes complete with multiple word lists, documentation, and Microsoft Visual Basic 6 source code. What it does not come with, because I lost it, is an installer. You’re going to have to register, if memory serves me, two DLLs before it’ll agree to run. However, to make up for that lack, the program comes with at least three bugs, that I’m aware of. What a bonus! Oh, wait…

It’s abandonware. I don’t even have a copy of VB6 anymore. So even if I wanted to improve it, or fix bugs (and I don’t), I couldn’t.

Beware: I have several other unsupported software projects. Unless I find something more interesting to write about by tomorrow, I’ll post another one.

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Thoughts On Jungle Disk

It all started with a discussion between a group of us over how we could share large multimedia files in production between group members, without a lot of expense and hastle. The ideal solution was determined to be cloud storage. That is, you send your files to another company (like amazon, racspace, mosso, or google) and they store the files for you, on multiple computers, in multiple locations. When you need the file, you can call it up without worry over how, or where, it happens to be stored. For our cloud storage provider, we wanted a solution that was: cheap, unlimited (multimedia files can be huge), fast, extremely secure, multiplatform, and point-and-click both for set-up and accessing our files.

Several companies exist to do this. The way they work is, they create a virtual hard drive on your computer, but instead of all the files on that drive getting stored on your computer, anything you put there gets uploaded into the cloud.

The first provider we looked at was ZumoDrive. It looked interesting: easy to use, fast, and well supported. Unfortunately, it had several problems. First of all, it only seemed to be available for Windows and IPhone. When one of us had windows, another OS X, and a third a linux netbook, that just wasn’t going to cut it. Second, some of the features for optimizing the cache, like changing the bit-rate on mp3s so they could be streamed over low bandwidth connections, or determining what to cache locally based on file type, seemed to be rather insecure. If we wanted our storage provider, and everyone in charge of the networks between them and us, to know what we were storing, we could just use FTP or WebDav to my dreamhost account. Third, we knew we were eventually going to want 500 GB. At $80 a month, the pricing for ZumoDrive was a little high. However, according to the reviews, Zumo Drive used a storage provider called Amazon S3. I figured I’d go looking for other companies using S3 to do the same thing.

The first one I found was Jungle Disk. It runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux. It has extremely secure encryption; neither Jungle Disk, nor Amazon S3, can tell what you’re storing in the cloud. With Jungle Disk, you use your own Amazon S3 account; Jungle Disk doesn’t bill you for anything, or provide you with anything other than the software. That means that if Jungle Disk shuts down, your files will still exist, unchanged. You control your data, not Jungle Disk. I’ve been using the software for a week, now, and I’m overall pleased with my experience. Set-up is a little harder than with ZumoDrive, but the price is also a lot cheaper. It’s 10 cents per gig. That means that if I use 500 gigs in a month, I pay for 500 gigs. If I go on vacation for two months, and use 0 gigs, I pay for nothing at all. For the screen reader users reading this, almost everything is accessible. The automated back-ups on OS X aren’t accessible, and they’re really hard to use on Windows as well, but other than that everything worked perfectly. Unfortunately, the Windows version of the software has a few problems:
1. under network settings, I had to turn off the option to use a windows file system driver, and use a virtual WebDav server instead. If I didn’t, Jungle Disk would crash Windows Explorer, and it couldn’t be relaunched until reboot.
2. Copying files to any jungle disk drive using Teracopy has serious issues.
But once I got those things fixed, everything worked well. One other, small, thing to keep in mind is that Jungle Disk uploads items to the cloud in the order you paste them. So, if you paste in 14 gigs of wav files, then paste in a 20 kb text file, the 20 kb text file won’t be available to other machines using your jungle disk until all 14 gigs of wav files have been sent up. It would be nice if Jungle Disk could detect extremely small files, and shuffle them ahead in the transfer list, so they’d be available to other computers right away.

update: Thanks to a poster in the comments, I was lead to try Wuala. It uses both cloud storage, as well as peer to peer storage, in an attempt to limit costs, increase available storage, and allow for more flexability. It looked, at first blush, as though it was ideal for my needs. Unfortunately, it has several major flaws. First off, purchasing more storage is expensive. You pay per year, rather than per gig used or per month. This is a steep up-front payment for a poor student. As well, it requires even more for-thought as to amount of storage required. While you can trade storage, if you have storage available, you can’t get more than 20 gig until at least 10 percent of the 20 gig you’re offering has been used. As well, your computer must be online for at least four hours in a row, every day. This does not work well for laptops. But the most serious flaw of wuala is that, instead of writing native code for each operating system, Wuala uses Java. While it’s not particularly family friendly, the most accurate, and concise, criticism of Java I’ve heard runs as follows: “saying that Java is good because it runs on all platforms is like saying that anal sex is good because it works on all genders.” I hate and despise Java. It’s slow. It’s interface is strange, and while it’s accessible with NVDA, the interface doesn’t follow any windows standards at all. It eats memory faster than an extremely fat person eats chips. I don’t trust Java to run my entertainment software. Under absolutely no conditions am I going to trust Java with my important files. Some of the features of wuala, like the world feature, could be useful for filesharing and warez. But at this point, in my opinion, it’s not a serious file exchange and file storage system. That aligns with most things peer to peer. Peer to peer is a useful toy for avoiding responsibility for breaking the law. But it’s not useful for when real, legal, work needs to be done. Wuala is an interesting social and thought experiment. But, at the moment, it’s nothing more. I haven’t even gotten into the problem of trading storage on my computer when my ISP caps my bandwidth. In theory, depending on what wuala stores on my computer, it could wind up costing me even more to trade storage than to buy storage.

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Devotional: Accepting Our Adventure

” The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.” — J R R Tolkien
The story of Moses and the burning bush is, more than anything else, the start of an adventure. It begins a quest for Moses: a quest to free the people of Israel from slavery. As well, it marks the start of an epoch desert adventure for all the people of Israel, fraught with defeat, danger, and triumph. But the most remarkable aspect of the story is how divided Moses seems to be about accepting his quest.

When he first encounters the burning bush, Moses is consumed with curiosity, and goes to investigate right away, and see why it doesn’t burn up. But when he realizes that the angel of the Lord is within the bush, he becomes afraid to look, and hides his face.

How many of us do the same thing? Many of us long, deep inside, for something exciting to happen. We want change, and we want things to improve in our own lives, and in the rest of the world. But when we encounter a situation that offers the excitement and change we think we want so badly, we become afraid and hide our faces so we don’t have to look. When it comes right down to it, going on a mission trip next summer wouldn’t fit the schedule. In this economy, changing jobs is just too risky. We’ll do it when we have time. We’ll do it when things are more secure. Someday, we’ll live a more adventurous life. But not today. Probably not tomorrow, either.

“The rush of years just tumbles on, and we get caught in the tide, just a teardrop in the river wild of time.
We don’t have to be legends, but our eyes need to be wide, or we’ll miss the history that’s passing buy.
You don’t have to conquer alien lands, or rule empires with an iron hand; you don’t have to be a hero or a nave.
You just have to live the life you choose, no matter if you win or lose.
At least you had the wisdom to be brave!” — Terence Chua

The next difficulty Moses struggles with is one that most of us are familiar with: “Who am I,” he asks. He doesn’t believe that he is good enough to be successful. He doesn’t believe that he, Moses, could really make a difference. He doesn’t see why it should be someone like him; aren’t other people far more qualified for this sort of thing? He is flawed; shouldn’t the people doing tasks this important be perfect?

How many of us use that as an excuse to avoid our own adventures? What good would we be at habitat for humanity? We don’t know anything about building houses; we’ll let more qualified people do that. We can’t be leaders, because we have no leadership experience. We’re just one person. What difference do our donations make, really? What do we know about politics? We’ll let people who know what they’re doing campaign. We only have one vote; what difference does one vote make? We’ll keep doing what we’re comfortable with; that’s what we’re good at, anyway. Someday we’ll do something different, but not until we’re good and ready.

“Living is learning,
of star shine and wonder,
of dew drops and thunder,
the world and yourself.
Inside be turning,
and outward be growing.
You won’t find this knowing
in books on a shelf.
Learning is doing,
not watching and waiting,
or sadly debating,
what you fear to try.” — Mercedes Lackey

We pray that we are able to take a fresh look at the world around us, and see all the adventures taking place there. We pray for the wisdom to see the adventures we are called to undertake, and the ability to see how we can make a difference. We pray for the courage to act, and to take a stand, even though we may feel insecure, under qualified, and small. We pray for the ability to apply the lessons we learn in God’s grand adventure story, the bible, to our own on-going adventures. We pray that we may be granted an understanding of our place in God’s plan. But most of all, we pray for the knowledge that no matter how outnumbered and alone we may feel during our adventures, no matter what fears we may face or how long the roads we may walk, we are never left to adventure on our own. Our God is with us.

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The Problem With Invisible Links

While I’m talking so much about things related to web development, I thought I’d post a little rant about a subject that’s been bothering me for a while now.

Can developers please, please, please JUST STOP IT ALREADY WITH THE INVISIBLE LINKS! I often work with people who are looking at the screen. When I encounter links that they don’t see, this does absolutely nothing but ad confusion for both of us. If a link is not displayed on the screen, it should, at the absolute minimum, be labelled “invisible” by my screen reader. This will stop me from asking sighted counterparts to, say, click the “skip to main content link, then look two or three lines down,” when the skip to main content link only exists for screen readers. This results in exchanges like this:

them: “What skip to main content link?”

me: “the one at the top of the page.”

them: “I don’t see it.”

me: “It’s, like, the first link.”

them: “No, it isn’t.”

me: “Oh, never mind. Just skip down to the main article. Did I spell all those street names right in the second paragraph?”

them: “Nope. You’ve got an extra d in Dundas. Third line. Fourth word.”

me: “Hold on. I think my screen reader splits lines completely different from the browser.”

Congratulations, everyone! We have now reached the point, in accessible technology, where it is almost completely impossible for a blind person and a sighted person to communicate with one another about a web page. If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here in the corner, banging my head against the wall. It’s more productive than trying to work with my sighted classmates, some days.

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The ARIA Saga Continues

This post is all prompted by Google’s recent addition of ARIA technology to Google news, that I blogged about Yesterday.

My post generated a lot of (unexpected, to me) discussion in the web accessibility community. I feel that I’m much too hard on ARIA in my original posting, because user-facing information about what ARIA does is thin and scattered. I’ve been asked how information about ARIA can be better communicated. Honestly, I don’t feel that the problem, in this case, lies with the developer community. As I said in a comment on my blog entry, the fault is Google’s. Google created a link on Google News and Google Reader to websites enhanced with ARIA. However, it failed to explain what ARIA can do for the user, what software the user must have to take advantage of ARIA, or give any introduction of what changes ARIA brought to Google News. Most users, who have older and out-dated software, will find that the ARIA link does nothing, and leave baffled. Those of us who try and investigate will find information about ARIA directed at developers, that provides little to no information about what ARIA does for us, and how to make it work. When, in my case, I finally found out what ARIA enhanced Google News did, I assumed that was the limit of the technology, and left unimpressed. I think that, at this point, the best thing the Web Accessibility Initiative can do is stress the importance to developers using ARIA of ensuring that the user has software that can support ARIA, and explaining how exactly the ARIA page is different from the non-ARIA page. Perhaps some of this effort should also fall on the shoulders of screen reader programmers; most screen readers have anounced to developers that they support ARIA, but they haven’t explained this feature to their users. Perhaps the WAI could create some sort of user-facing documentation for ARIA that developers could link to whenever they create an ARIA enhanced page; but I’m not really sure that that’s the job of a standards body. As things stand right now, blind users are starting to see ARIA links popping up on accessible websites, trying to find out what ARIA means for them, and coming up confused or empty handed.

My original comment follows:

@Shawn Henry: This seems clear enough, but it’s a document for web developers. To me, the user, this is all just theory. What should probably exist somewhere (and maybe does? Google doesn’t index
everything.) is a page describing websites using the technology, discussing what differences it makes for users (like interaction with google chat, the pop-up menus in gmail, etc),
and what screen reading and browser combos support this technology (the only one I’ve got working
thus far is firefox 3+NVDA; Freedom Scientific says they support it, but something must be broken
on all three of my windows boxes because I just can’t make it work). The people who should probably
write this kind of user document, in fact, are Google. They’ve suddenly presented all screen-reader
users of Google News and Google Reader with a mystery link about “ARIA,” (a link that our sighted
counterparts apparently can’t even see, so we get strange looks when we ask about it) and failed
completely to explain anything at all. When people search for information about ARIA on google
itself, it seems they wind up at either web developer resources, year old discussions of google
reader, or my blog, depending on what keywords they use. IMHO, the way to do this would be to
present a kind of “ARIA information page” the first time the user clicks the ARIA enhanced link,
explaining what software they need to be using, and what extra functionality ARIA ads to the page. Pressing questionmark for help, while an interesting interface enhancement, is just so far removed from anything I would ever think of doing on any normal page, that I won’t try it unless prompted with a “press questionmark for help” message. Otherwise, I’ll go hunting for a help link. Because that’s what you do with web pages: you click links on them.

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What Is Google News ARIA?

I’ve gotten a somewhat surprising number of hits to my blog over the last few days, coming from lost googlers searching for strings like “google news aria” and “what is google news aria.” Unfortunately, it seems that Google itself doesn’t have any information posted about the subject (or if they do, it’s not ranked highly in Google). Thus everyone is winding up at my rather short entry on accessibility improvements to google news, where I don’t really explain what ARIA is for, because I don’t really know. In an effort to satisfy the internets curiosity, I thought I’d take a minute to do some research on the subject.

According to wikipedia, Aria is really called WAI-ARIA, and:

WAI-ARIA is a set of documents that specify how to increase the accessibility of dynamic content
and user interface components developed with Ajax, HTML, JavaScript and related technologies.

That kind of rings some bells, for me. I vaguely remember reading something about it, somewhere. At the time, I think I just ignored it as yet another of the vague, academic, and impossible to follow pronouncements from The World Wide Web Consortium. The wikipedia article doesn’t help; it’s an awful text block of doomb with hardly any links to other wikipedia articles, and no headings or paragraphs. Before anyone says anything: no, I will not fix it. Wikipedia has a CAPTCHA, and I refuse to give any of my time or money to the organization until the wikipedia CAPTCHA has been completely removed. This particularly poor example of a Wikipedia article also fails to answer the all-important question: what does Aria do for *me*, the user?

An article from 2008 on the Google Reader Blog gives us a hint. Apparently, Google Reader also has ARIA support. The article says that it works with firefox3 and firevox or jaws 8. When using that software, after clicking the ARIA link, pressing questionmark will read out a list of hotkeys. I couldn’t get it to work at all with any version of jaws or firefox. However, it works as advertised in NVDA and firefox 3. It makes working with the extremely ajaxy google reader much easier; hotkeys can mark an article as read, jump from article to article, visit an article, subscribe and unsubscribe from feeds, and more.

But none of that has anything to do with Google News. However, after going to Google News, and selecting the ARIA enhanced link, pressing questionmark will read out a similar, if shorter, list of hotkeys. Unfortunately, when it comes to Google News, I just don’t see the point. I can already jump from story to story by pressing h, as each story now has a heading. I don’t need the special hotkeys that ARIA provides to do this. The other hotkeys in Google News are similarly unimpressive. But don’t take my word for it! Go to the ARIA enhanced google news with Firefox and NVDA, and see for yourself. All the functionality offered by ARIA can be done easier, and faster, with NVDA itself. While ARIA is useful for ajax websites like Google Reader, it’s of no use on Google News. And even in Google Reader, I’m still not sure why we need ARIA. Can’t we already assign hotkeys to things with the accesskey atribute? Many, many websites already do this. Perhaps, though, I’m missing something important. But on first blush, it doesn’t look all that revolutionary. The other advantage of using accesskey is that it doesn’t need a special version of the page, like ARIA seems to. Accesskey atributes can just be added into the original page, rather than building something entirely new.

The best way to conclude my thoughts on the matter is as follows: “meh.”

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